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Rancho Los Alamitos opens new Rancho Center, restored historic barns area and gardens
Exterior view of the new Rancho Center at Rancho Los Alamitos. Building designed by Stephen J. Farneth, FAIA, Architectural Resources Group. ©Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

LONG BEACH, CA.- After more than two decades of careful restoration and thoughtful transformation, Rancho Los Alamitos/Povuu’ngna—a nationally significant cultural landmark and a sacred site that represents the past, present and future of California—reopened to the public on June 10 with a new Rancho Center and restored historic Barns Area and Gardens, providing exhibition spaces that will greatly enhance its award winning programs and free visitor experiences. Located on Bixby Hill in the heart of urban Long Beach, the 7½-acre Rancho Los Alamitos is the quintessential place to experience the living story of the region, where every year thousands of visitors come and learn about how the cultural and ecological history of Southern California still resonate throughout the beautiful landscape.

New Rancho Center & Barns Area Restoration Project
Envisioned and implemented by the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation, the new Rancho Center and Barns Area Restoration Project has greatly strengthened the publicly-owned site’s longstanding commitment to ensuring the historic preservation of the site for future generations, while providing free admission and public education. Constructed in multiple phases over a period of 5 years, the $14 million transformation retained the authentic character of the former working ranch through careful restoration and reconstruction efforts of the entire site, guided by meticulous research using RLA’s extensive archive of historic photographs, drawings, and oral histories from former ranch workers and the Bixby family.

The completed transformation also addressed the need to move the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation’s offices out of the historic Ranch House into new spaces. While the Foundation offices are to be relocated to the Rancho Center’s lower floor, a new bookstore and classroom has been built in the restored barnyard area and sited in the footprint of Fred Bixby’s old car garage. The Foundation will turn next to the restoration of the Ranch House areas that had been previously used as administrative spaces.

“The moment to unveil Rancho Los Alamitos’ new and rejuvenated incarnation is finally here and we are so delighted to begin this new chapter that steps up our commitment to preserve this extraordinary place and offer visitors a unique learning experience,” said Preston Hotchkis, Chair of the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation Board of Trustees. “In addition to being a gorgeous site, Rancho Los Alamitos is a place where nature and culture are brought together by the passage of time to weave a tapestry of past, present and future.”

Rancho Los Alamitos singularly tells the story of Southern California through its remarkable landscape which includes traces of the ancestral Tongva village of Povuu’ngna, an adobe-core ranch house ca. 1800, four acres of lush historic gardens, and the working ranch barnyard of the early-mid 20th century. In its service to over 25,000 yearly visitors, the Rancho Los Alamitos site itself, along with its award-winning tours, publications, special events and special educational curriculum, set the stage for new understandings of cultural ecology—of the intertwined paths of people, resources, flora and fauna over time.

Rancho Center, Barns Area and Geothermal Technology
The new 13,000-square-foot Rancho Center is a stunning blend of historic and contemporary architecture using a 1948 horse barn as the historic core for the new larger structure. With new exhibition, education and programming space, this latest addition to RLA provides visitors new and engaging ways to connect with the powerful story of the landscape and its inhabitants over time. Designed by the renowned historic preservation architect Stephen J. Farneth, FAIA, co-founder of the Architectural Resources Group in San Francisco, the Rancho Center is the centerpiece of RLA’s transformation and was born out of the desire to expand the capacity for public education and programming while also ensuring historic preservation of the site.

The Rancho Center’s interior environment, including the new innovative exhibition Rancho Los Alamitos—Ever Changing, Always the Same, designed by William S. Wells and Claudia Jurmain, offers visitors a first chance to learn about the story of the place and its inhabitants over time through personal narratives, photos, oral histories and reproductions of historic documents. Stretching across the Rancho Center’s multiple spaces—the Rancho, Theater and History rooms—are interwoven themes that capture changes to the landscape and its culture across time —“Renewing Possibilities,” “Natives and Newcomers,” and “Borders and Boundaries.”

In the Rancho Room, a 25 x 25 foot floor map displays the changing borders of the Rancho within the regional context, past and present, while magnificent large-scale watercolor murals by the late renowned illustrator and graphic designer, Dugald Stermer, cover the multi-purpose Rancho Room’s walls and convey the relation between people and place, climate, and the vital role of water.

Both the History Room exhibition and the award-winning video Rancho Los Alamitos: An Island in Time screening in the Theater feature an untapped archive of original source materials—ledgers, letters and oral histories—that tell the stories of those who lived and worked there over time, including Indian workers, Belgian tenant farmers, Chinese immigrants, Mexican ranch hand families, and Japanese lease farmers. The exhibition displays names and nicknames written in John Bixby’s 19th century ledgers that offer a snapshot of the incredibly diverse rancho community more than one hundred years ago. The ledgers show “Augustine Old Basque, Old Charlie Swede, Black Frenchman, John Italian, Old Irishman, Manuel Portuguese, Old Glory Mexican, Foolish Boy, George Big Dutchman, Ah Yoon, Ah Fan, Chiyo Kawanami Ohira,” and “Tom Elliot Texas herder.”

The complete restoration of the historic Barns Area has reestablished the authentic working ranch look and feel of the early-mid 20th century barnyard in an ambitious undertaking that included relocating, seismic retrofitting and restoring five agricultural structures to recapture the layout and character of the historic working Ranch. Working corrals, rabbit hutches and a duck pond were also restored to once again house the great Shires and draft horses, rabbits, ducks and chickens who will return home to the Ranch to stay.

One example of the Foundation’s meticulous stewardship of the site and the conservationist ethos that guides its work is the fact that Rancho Los Alamitos is the first historic site on the West Coast to adopt geothermal technology. Hidden underneath the barnyard area, the geothermal system supports the heating and air conditioning systems of the Rancho Center and the Bookshop/Classroom, minimizes the ecological footprint of the new structures and preserves the tranquility of the site. The geothermal project involved installing 22,000 vertical feet of piping in thirty bores, each extending to 350 feet below the ground. The piping is filled with water and the earth’s constant temperature of 68 degrees is used to keep the water coming into and out of the building’s heating and air conditioning systems at that temperature, thus requiring the use of very little energy for heating and cooling.

The Historic Gardens
Rancho Los Alamitos’s four acres of historic gardens are a key contribution to invigorating visitor experiences at Rancho Los Alamitos. Elegantly designed and matured by the grace of time, the 1920s and 1930s gardens invite visitors to meander among displays of exotic and native flora and be lulled away to a place where time slows down and inspiration happens. The theme of “Natives and Newcomers” not only describes inhabitants and laborers at Rancho Los Alamitos, but is directly tied to the vegetation, including native wildlife and additions to the landscape made by successive stewards of the property. While the gardens were designed by the iconic Olmsted Brothers Firm, set designer Florence Yoch and Huntington Gardens curator William Hetrich, all of the historic gardens were born from the particular vision of Florence Bixby, who often sought to create a spiritual refuge for herself as well as the Rancho workers, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the working ranch. Matt Randolph, of Pasadena-based landscape architects Kornrandolph, whose clients include the Getty Villa and Autry National Center, has worked with RLA staff on the preservation and restoration of the rugged landscape of the barns area, as well as the refined motif of the historic gardens.

A Place for Dialogue on Issues of Place
As visitors can now experience the reinvigorated site in a new light through the Rancho Center’s permanent exhibition and learning spaces, they are also encouraged to enjoy a special Grand Opening Year program that includes an array of public programs and symposia centered on RLA’s commitment to enriching cultural dialogue. As part of fostering critical discussion around issues that the Rancho landscape highlights, the 2012 Conversations in Place speaker series features the distinguished California historian and author, Kevin Starr; Marc Pachter, the Interim Director of the National Museum of American History and former director of the National Portrait Gallery; and renowned anthropologist Peter Nabokov, among other scholars and designers , exchanging ideas about how issues of importance “back then” at the Rancho carry forward into today and the future.

A History of Rancho Los Alamitos—Southern California Microcosm
Rancho Los Alamitos or “Ranch of the Little Cottonwoods,” was named for the native cottonwood trees once plentiful in the area due to natural springs. Today, these trees can be seen in the Native Garden, with the newest “little cottonwood” in the restored Barns Area. Key themes such as resilience, renewal, diversity, hard change and continuity reverberate throughout Rancho Los Alamitos’ history. Today, as a publicly owned ranch with an emphasis on education, the historic open green space of Rancho Los Alamitos has become a quintessential place for people to experience the living and breathing story of Southern California. Water, land for agriculture, ranching and real estate, oil wealth, and open green space each appeared at the right time to support communities who sustained themselves and each other through the Rancho’s resources.

The story of Rancho Los Alamitos begins long before the Bixby family donated the family ranch to the City of Long Beach in 1968, transforming what had been a working ranch to a public oasis and setting the stage for what Rancho Los Alamitos is today. Around 500 AD, the land was home to the native Tongva people, who called the hill site village Povuu’ngna, a sacred place of creation with nearby natural springs, on which they gathered for trade and ceremony. For Spanish soldier Manuel Nieto in 1790, the land that included what would become Rancho Los Alamitos—a name taken from the Cottonwood trees that grew plentifully in groves nourished by the natural springs of Povuu’ngna—was a ranching gem amassed for service given to the Spanish Crown. Subsequent owners Governor José Figueroa and Yankee Don Abel Stearns saw the site as a smart investment and a haven away from Los Angeles. And to three generations of the Bixby family, the ranch’s last private owners, and the workers and tenant farmers from around the globe who worked there, Rancho Los Alamitos was an enterprising ranch that would endure for almost a century through the rise of modern-day Long Beach.

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